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Why simple language is a complex challenge

Keeping writing simple is anything but in the federal government. A story I wrote yesterday underscored how agencies are struggling to communicate clearly despite a mandate that requires them to avoid complicated language.

The plain-writing advocate Center for Plain Language ranked 12 federal agencies on their compliance with the requirements of the Plain Writing Act. Each agency was given two scores. The first considers whether an agency uses plain language in its documents, has crafted a plain-writing adoption plan and educated employees in plain language, among other aspects. The second grade represents how well an agency followed the spirit of the mandate.

The Veterans Affairs Department ranked worst, with two solid F’s in both scores. Its only saving grace was naming a plain-writing official. But that’s “all they have done. . . . There is no website, apparently no plan or compliance report,” the report card said.

Why is simple writing so hard? I asked Annetta Cheek, board chair at the Center for Plain Language, to share some terrible – and terrific – examples of government writing. Cheek, who previously served as plain language coordinator at the Federal Aviation Administration, also gave some tips on how to avoid the mess that's bureaucratese. 

Who's the worst offender of complex language? Government? Industry? Academia?

They all have some terrible writing. For example, it’s hard to find something worse than the user agreement from RIM (BlackBerry). But I would have to pick government, because they have the highest level of responsibility to the public. So it’s not so much that they are worse than industry or academia, but that they have a greater responsibility to be clear.

How can managers best implement the Plain Writing Act?

Get training for their staff and take the training themselves so they know what to look for. Support the staffs’ efforts to write in plain language. Have clarity of communication an element in performance reports. Be a good model of plain language writing for their staff.

What are some challenges of the act when it comes to adoption in federal agencies?

The culture of bureaucracy, where there is little thought to the needs of the intended audience. Rather, writers in bureaucracies write the way they think their organization, managers, and attorneys expect them to. And a big challenge – training people to write clearly.

What are some good examples of plain writing?

See any of our ClearMark winners. Here’s some I particularly like:

From the American Bar Association, believe it or not, an excellent pamphlet on naming someone to be your legal representative regarding your health care

From the government, a website, A very well-done site, well written, well organized, good navigation. They did a lot of testing during development.

Last year’s top ClearMark winner from IRS – a rewritten form about child care tax credit. Compare the earlier version to the new version

From SunLife, an entire campaign trying to educate customers about the costs of health care.

How about complex writing?

See also some other WonderMark winners:

A message to Defense Department employees about their pay system.

A merchant agreement from a major regional bank.

A notice from Fairfax County to people getting divorced (don’t get divorced in Fairfax County, obviously!)

You can find lots by poking around on government websites. I was just looking at HUD’s website and found this report on energy savings. A report guaranteed not to be read.

And finally, I just had to include this, probably my all-time favorite WonderMark, although there aren’t many words. I’ve looked at it many times and it still makes me laugh. What were they thinking?

Why do people use complex writing?

  • They think it’s a requirement of their organization.
  • They are just updating old models, not creating new documents, and the old models are awful.
  • They think it makes them look knowledgeable.
  • They can’t write any other way. Writing clearly is much harder work than writing in your usual bureaucratic manner.
  • They are not thinking of the intended reader. Instead, they are thinking about their manager, the lawyer that has to approve the document, the technical person at the next desk.

What are some guidelines to simple, concise writing?

There are lots, but if I had to pick just a few, I’d say:

  • Strongly prefer active voice
  • Keep your sentences reasonably short
  • Keep subject, verb and object together – don’t stick other stuff in between
  • Omit anything your reader doesn’t really need
  • Use pronouns
  • See the Federal Plain Language guidelines for lots more

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 Steve Flyover Country

Correction to my previous comment. I see now that ClearMark and WonderMark as you've used them refer to two different awards. I was not aware of that as the terms were unfamiliar to me and they were not explained in the body of the blog posting. Just another one of those clear writing pitfalls; you have to make sure your audience is familiar with the terminology you are using.

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 Steve Flyover Country

It might help to proof read your own writing. You mention several ClearMark winners, then say "See also some other WonderMark winners:". I enjoy the WonderMark ( web comic too, but I wouldn't let it slip into my writing as a synonym for ClearMark.

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